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Monday, June 29, 2009

Can the Wild Koala be saved ?????

 pauls place

Can We Save our Wild Koala?
The Conference

Friends of the Koala, also widely known by the acronym FOK, certainly know how to deliver a memorable conference.  As the town of Lismore was declared a natural disaster zone and the Wilson River peaked at an incredible twenty centimetres below the town levee (nearly eleven metres), koala conservationists from around Australia braved the elements and gathered for the Koala Conservation Conference, the first of its kind in Australia. Unfortunately, due to the treacherous weather conditions and flooding many of the conference delegates had to leave Lismore in the early hours of the morning and with them several of the guest speakers for the day, including Professor Frank Carrick and Dr Bill Ellis of the University of Queensland who were to respectively deliver the Keynote Address and a paper on Climate Change and the Koala. Also making an emergency departure was the Conference Opening Guest Speaker, Colleen Wood of Southern Ash Wildlife Shelter in Victoria who is currently caring for the famous koala Sam, who reached world wide fame by those amazing photos showing her drinking from a fireman water bottle while holding tightly onto his hand.  The FOK Team re-planned with ease however and the conference was launched with Mark Graham of Coffs Harbour City Council with his paper Are Our Laws and Policies Knocking North Coast Koalas Out Of Their Trees?  Which I must admit set a rather depressing atmosphere to the start of the conference. which unfortunately seemed to last the entire day through as more and more speakers verified Mark’s words.
Habitat Loss Mark painted a very grim picture for the future of our koalas, particularly those in the northern areas of NSW, an area which is drawing more and more sea-changers who see the beauty of the north as prime human habitat.  Sadly, as more humans migrate north massive urban development follows resulting in habitat destruction for our precious and vulnerable koalas. Development, so it would seem, is today top priority and it comes at the cost of many of our native animal species.  Numerous loopholes exist in current state and local laws that allow indiscriminate broad scale clearing of native vegetation and many of the agencies that are responsible for the koala, including the Department of Environment and Climate Change, Department of Planning and the Catchment Management Authority are turning a blind eye and are not pursuing breaches of the legislation designed to protect the koala and its habitat.  We are seeing local extinctions of the koala as a result, even in areas where the koala has quite recently been considered abundant.The State Environmental Planning Policy No 44 – Koala Habitat Protection (or better known simply as SEPP44) as outlined by Sue Higginson, a solicitor with Environmental Defenders Office, is a law that was introduced to New South Wales in 1995 after recognising critical problems in koala conservation. 
It would seem though that today, 14 years after the policy commenced, we are not seeing improvements in koala conservation and SEPP44 is not considered as a useful or effective tool in the management of koala conservation.  Part of the reason for this is because SEPP44 is not valid for land sizes under one hectare and much of the koala habitat in northern New South Wales is located on land parcels that are under one hectare and so SEPP44 is not relevant.  As a result large areas of koala habitat are cleared in a patchwork manner and nothing can be done about it. SEPP44 is also not recognised on land dedicated or reserved under the National Parks and Wildlife Act or the Forestry Act, and as mentioned above government agencies are not interested in pursuing relevant legislation breaches when it comes to native animal protection and so these areas seem to fall into a black hole.
SEPP44 encourages local governments to implement a Koala Plan of Management (KPoM).  However the wording within the policy is vague at best, stating that plan of management may be prepared for the use of the word renders the policy redundant as it is merely a suggestion not an enforcement.  The word must surely would have been more useful terminology in a policy aimed at protecting a species. Out of the 106 local government areas listed in SEPP44 (areas with known koala habitat) only one has implemented a Koala Plan of Management and that is Port Stephens.  Coffs Harbour was the first council to implement a KPoM but it has since been audited and was found to have failed in its objective.  Taree’s council, we were told by Christeen McLeod of Koalas in Care, wrote a KPoM some years ago but it has never been implemented.Sue Higginson writes that State Environmental Planning Policies are necessary and important, but there is dire need for policies such as SEPP44 to keep up with changing pressures and growing knowledge.  SEPP44 needs to be monitored and assessed in order to be able to be considered and measured as an effective species protection tool. The long awaited and welcomed recent approval and release of the NSW Recovery Plan for the Koala makes specific references to the need to reform SEPP44, which arguably do not go far enough.
Disease Jon Hanger, of the Australia Wildlife Hospital at Australia Zoo, presented his paper “Infectious Disease in Koalas: Implications for Conservation” which seemed to deepen the depressed mood of the conference.  Jon discussed how, along with habitat destruction, koala diseases are undoubtedly one the of most critical threatening processes contributing to their dramatic population decline in New South Wales and Queensland.  Two of the most troubling diseases for the koala is Retrovirus (KoRV) and Chlamydia which are both still relatively misunderstood.
John told us that “Koala Retrovirus are fragile organisms that are able to integrate their own genetic sequences into the DNA strands of the cell that they have infected.  In doing so they are able to hijack host cell processes to produce many more virus particles in effect, turning the host cell into a virus factory”.  Scary!  While in this process the virus may also “accidentally” switch on genes of the host cell, and this in turn may cause cancer.
The following conditions may by caused by infection with KoRV
• Leukaemia (a cancer of the blood)
Myelodysplasia (abnormalities in production of blood cells)
Immunodeficiency syndrome (koala “AIDS”)
And other cancers, including lymphoma, osteochondroma and mesothelioma, and more.
Jon believes, based on current research, that 100% of the koala population in NSW and Queensland are effected by KoRV at some level.  Interestingly, it would seem that the prevalence of KoRV in Victorian and South Australian koalas is considerably lower, but that result may be due more to the lack of study in that region.  The reasons for such a high prevalence of KoRV is that it is a genetic disease, inherited from parent to offspring, but it also spreads from koala to koala in close contact, similar to the spread of other viruses.
Jon told us that it is still unknown where the virus came from and what kind of impact it will have on koala populations.  Studies into this continue.
It is considered that Chlamydiosis is now more common in koalas because of KoRV.  Chlamydia affects most mainland koala populations and many islands ones too, but it is more common in the northern koalas of NSW and Queensland. 
Some of the symptoms of Chlamydia include:
Reproductive tract disease
Again it would appear that southern koalas are not affected by these illness as much as the northern koalas are.  Chlamydia in southern koalas is relatively minor and rarely cause debilitating disease where in contrast severe chlamydial disease is commonly reported in their northern cousins. Koalas that are infected with Chlamydia and KoRV may not show any outward signs of illness, and therefore some believe that these diseases are not as prevalent as they really are. It is clear that more research into koala diseases is paramount to saving the species.  Jon strongly urged all to lobby government to reach this goal and even suggested that as our past and previous government seem very lax on native animal research - and indeed saving species from decline – that we should all be “voting green”!
In conclusion, it would appear that these two key issues that threaten the survival of the wild koala – habitat loss and disease – really need to be fused into one very big important issue.  If we as a nation focus on habitat protection only and comprehensive disease research is not funded and quickly implemented then we are simply wasting our time.  And vice versa.
We need to see more laws that protect the koala – better laws that don’t have loopholes or can simply be ignored by a lazy government.  We need to see legislation breaches pursued.  We need to see the rehabilitation or construction of wildlife corridors for ease of movement for the koala and we need to implement a comprehensive public education program – disturbingly there is still so many people who share the koalas home that don’t know enough about the koala, how they live and what threatens them.  And we need to see comprehensive and in-depth research carried out on koala diseases – and we need to see it NOW! The state of koala is in a very bad way.  Along with these two key issues there are the others that threaten all of our wildlife including predator attack and road kill and injury.  It is clear that there is much work to be done to ensure the longevity of these beautiful Australian icons.
The question is…. can we save our wild koalas in time?

This report is written with the help of Jon Hanger and Mark Graham. Colin Wood kindly forwarded their conference papers to me.  Many thanks to all of them.

Are Our Laws and Policies Knocking North Coast Koalas Out of Their Trees? – Cr Mark Graham
Infectious Disease in Koalas:  Implications for Conservation – Jon Hanger, Australia Zoo
State Environmental Planning Policy (SEPP) No. 44 – Koala Habitat Protection

posted by Monique at 2:18 pm  

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